How Yola Got Her Groove Back

[Many thanks to Peter Jordens for sharing this link.] Chris Willman (Variety, July 19, 2021) writes about Yola [Yolanda Quartey], whose parents hail from Ghana (father) and Barbados (mother), in “How Yola Got Her Groove Back: Why America is Falling for Bristol’s Greatest Soul-Country-Pop Export.” He says, “The singer is usurping expectations about genre and race with a new Dan Auerbach-produced album that touches on everything from disco to Britpop, in advance of an acting breakout in Baz Luhrmann’s Elvis movie.”

Yola first came into the consciousness of most music fans when she was nominated for a best new artist Grammy last year, among four attention-getting nods she picked up. Come 2022, she’s destined to capture the attention of movie fans when she appears in Baz Luhrmann’s untitled Elvis Presley movie. In Australia earlier this year, she filmed her supporting role as Sister Rosetta Tharpe, one of the recognized progenitors of rock ’n’ roll. Yola has a huge amount of empathy for the historic figure she portrays, who is often characterized as a “beloved” pioneer of the genre.

“Not beloved enough, actually, I’d go so far as to say,” she asserts, voice rising with a polite but properly righteous indignation. “If she was as beloved as she should be, she would have been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame way before 2018. It would have been decades ago. You know,” Yola further declares, “if I invented something, I would expect to be first into the Hall of Fame!”

That she would make this plain-spoken a stand for Sister Rosetta — the guitar-slinging pioneer of 1950s rock — is unsurprising, given that, as Yola’s new album title suggests, she’s just as bold about making a “Stand for Myself.” On the new record (due out July 30), she’s staking her own claim as a stereotype-defying synthesist in an era no less determined to slap easy labels on mold-busting Black women.

Yola has said that just on the basis of her look, her race and her strong demeanor, it was sometimes assumed in the early stages of her career that she naturally aspired to be a belty R&B diva, instead of the nuanced and harder-to-pin-down alchemist of so many forms of pop music that she’s turned out to be. So there was an element of surprise to the rootsy inflections on her 2019 breakthrough, “Walk Through Fire,” which got several of its four Grammy nominations in American roots or Americana categories. But then that led to an almost reverse stereotype, painting Yola as such a Southern-fried novelty — and so downplaying her actual R&B side — that you can find articles misguidedly referring to her as a “Black country star.” The mention of this makes her laugh uproariously (as many things do).

“There are some people that are just like, ‘I didn’t get the memo. I didn’t even read her Instagram bio!’” Which she proceeds to quote: “‘Musically genre-fluid’ — it’s there in writing! Yet what inevitably happens,” she says, noting initial reaction to the preview tracks from “Stand for Myself,” “is they listen and go, ‘This isn’t country.’ Well, what was I trying to tell you?’ But it’s always going to be like that: People want to take hold of you and want you to exemplify their agenda. And sometimes that is done in a loving way, in that they’re like, ‘No, we want you! Be in our club!’ And here’s my deal: I’m in everyone’s club.”

For a good example of how “there is something about my aesthetic that always pulls in two other things you weren’t expecting to be there,” she pulls up one of her new songs, “Whatever You Want,” for a musical biopsy. “You might go, ‘That’s quite a countrified song’ — then you listen to the drums, and it’s kind of a Mersey beat. Then you go, ‘Okay, that’s maybe a bit Stax-ier than I thought it was. But that doesn’t really sound like a soul melody. Hmm, there’s something a little bit Britty here. Is that … Stone Roses?’” She enthusiastically answers herself: “Yeah! It’s Britpop, people.” Another robust laugh. “I’m English!” [. . .]

“I was always labeled as strong, because I’m a dark-skinned Black woman,” she says, “and we all know all women darker than caramel must be strong. It’s the ridiculous trope that we’re all starting to learn must be bullshit. It’s like, ‘Wow, just because melanin turned up in the womb, that means I can endure any horror!’” [. . .]

Born in Bristol, England, as Yolanda Quartey — and later to become professionally known as Yola Carter before resorting to a mononym — she was the child of a Ghanaian father of whom she has no memories and a psychiatric-nurse mother who emigrated from Barbados in the 1970s. Her single mum, who moved them to Portishead, often spent what little money came in on an eclectic record collection, which led to Yola growing up with an unusual love of Elton John (now an enthusiastic Yola booster), the Beatles, Ella Fitzgerald and country music. (Loving country in Britain “made me weird to everyone, not just people of color. But I was already weird, so it was fine.”) Yet for all the records she and her mother shared, Yola was barred from even thinking about pursuing music. [. . .]

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